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Read a review of Traveling Songs (1996) for string quartet by Eric E. Harrison, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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Jointly Commissioned by the Quapaw Quartet of the Arkansas Symphony and the Chamber Musicians of Northern California.
Traveling Songs are contemporary adaptations of familiar American songs about travel -- travel of the body, of the spirit and of the imagination. These adaptations use the traditional songs as "springboards" for musical explorations -- delighting in the sonorities, the colors and the humor latent in the tunes.
Because this work is a joint commission from string quartets in California and Arkansas, it seems appropriate to feature one song especially recognizing each state. Thus the first song is "Sweet Betsy From Pike" -- a California Gold Rush Song from the 1850s. The melody is presented in a suitably rough-hewn manner -- blatant quarter-notes in the key of C Major. Dynamic contrasts and tonal shifts are purposely blunt. And our "Sweet Betsy" is taken into different keys, including a switch to the minor mode. Finally, perhaps drawing upon the "sweetness" of the blues, the harmonies become more complex, with a merging of major and minor at the end.
"Follow the Drinkin' Gourd" is based on a traditional African-American ballad. Dating back to the time of the Underground Railroad, the lyrics for this song provided a map to the runaway slaves. By heading toward the Big Dipper (the "Drinkin' Gourd"), the fugitives would head north, toward Canada and freedom. This instrumental version features a swing rhythm, marked "in walking style." Occasional foot stomps are inserted as part of the journey. "Shimmering" tremoli may suggest the stars seen overhead.
"Coming Home" is structured as a Minuet and Trio. There are many types of journeys home, and this is an especially American one!
Terror fills the soul of the composer (not from Arkansas) attempting to elaborate "Arkansas Traveler" for an audience in Little Rock! One dares not explore the humor of the state song. And yet how can one resist! And thus our "Traveler" is presented energetically, then daintily, then in a modern (cubistic!) fashion, and finally, joyfully! The listener might also hear the title proudly announced in the opening/recurrent rhythms.
The composer wishes to thank the Quapaw Quartet and the Chamber Musicians of Northern California for their support of her previous chamber works, and especially for the commission of her Third String Quartet: Traveling Songs.
Notes by the composer